I’ve done some nerve-wracking things in my life. But meeting my future stepchildren for the first time had my stomach in knots I’d never experienced before. Knocking on the door of my boyfriend’s flat, I heard them before I saw them. Three high-pitched voices, six racing feet. At that time, they were 3, 4 and 5. Three little blonde-haired boys who would later, 18 months later, join my son and daughter to witness the exchanging of rings, the celebration of us become an official family of seven.
When I first met my boyfriend, I had been single for years and resigned myself to the fact that it would probably be like that for a long time to come. I live in a small town, socialize with married couples, and had been burned too many times to have any faith in online dating. Then I met him, and my life turned upside down in the best way. He had also been married before, and had young children. He was still going through difficult times with his ex, fighting for more time with the sons he adored. He warned me, on our first date, that this would make being with him difficult. I didn’t care. I knew he was worth it.
I took my dog with me for that first meeting — an excitable companion of my own to help break the ice. We took her for a walk, and they chatted to me the entire way, fighting for my attention. I watched their dad with them and fell in love with him a little more. Back at the flat, muddy boots discarded, they wanted me to stay longer. But it was time to go. We didn’t want to rush them. Over the next few months, there were more short visits, more introductions. We spent the last night of the year at my house, all five kids spending the night together for the first time.
Almost two years down the line, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Bringing together five children after divorce, and in my husband’s case, a huge amount of acrimony, was never going to be easy. Being a stepparent is such a unique role. “It's an interesting bond that develops between a stepparent and a stepchild, not friend, not parent; yet each grows into the other’s heart in a strong way,” says clinical psychologist and cognitive-behaviorist Dr. Jennifer Guttman.
It’s both a pleasure and an enormous responsibility to be part of these boys’ lives. Not only have they taught me important things about parenting and family life, they’ve taught me some unexpected lessons about love, too.
“Stepparents can learn about love from their stepkids because stepkids aren't required to love their stepparents,” says therapist Katie Leikam. “They give their love free of choice. That's a valuable lesson to know your worth as a stepparent.”
On a practical level, you can’t get through a day with five young kids in the house without plenty of patience. It’s noisy. It’s messy. It’s often frustrating. There are arguments and spillages and breakages. On a deeper level, patience is needed to help the kids settle into a new way of life, a new type of family. With support and love — and plenty of space when they need it — they’ll get there in their own time, but you can’t force it.
“Patience is a big lesson,” agrees licensed professional counselor Stacy Haynes, who works a lot with stepparents and co-parenting families. “You need this to navigate all the transitions you and your stepchildren are likely to go through.”
All relationships need a certain amount of flexibility to go the distance, but when stepkids come into the picture, you need it in spades. You’re not just parenting with your partner; there are ex-partners in the picture who’ll affect your lives with the children, whether you like it or not.
“Stepparents must learn to be family-centered early on in a co-parenting relationship,” says Haynes. “Not only do you have to think of your spouse but their existing children — which is quite different than when you plan to have children together.”
Communicating effectively is crucial to all aspects of parenting, and fundamental to healthy stepparenting because there are so many occasions where minor issues can spiral out of control if they’re not addressed and discussed. This goes for talking to the kids and to your partner. Stepchildren aren’t children you’ve raised together from day one, so you’re bound to have differences in your parenting styles and values. Only through honest communication have my husband and I been able to bring our parenting philosophies in line.
“Communication is key in stepparenting,” says Haynes. “You have to be able to recognize that children may have different experiences and expectations in their other home. You really need to take time to communicate how things should be in your home — and make no assumptions.”
My stepkids (and my own kids) are my models for resiliency in life. They’ve adapted to situations beyond their control — situations they didn’t ask to be in, situations that often put them under unfair pressures and forced them to deal with issues that required maturity beyond their years.
“Stepchildren are able to adapt to having two homes and two sets of rules and expectations,” says Leikam. “From our stepchildren, we can learn how to adapt to life's many changes.”
“As a stepparent, you want to become a mentor that can guide in a mindfully loving way, while respecting the parental rules and boundaries,” says Guttman. “You can learn a lot about your ability to cope with a loss of control in a situation with someone you love, while still remaining caring and attached.”
It’s a constant balancing act. My husband and I have to balance what our relationship needs with what our stepkids need from us. It involves sacrifice and compromise on our part. We also have to put aside any residual feelings of guilt over the breakdown of the relationship with the other biological parents and put in place boundaries to benefit everyone in the family. At the same time, we have to understand that it might feel more natural for our kids to try to push those boundaries, rather than accept them.
There’s no single secret to successful stepparenting — just like parenting your own kids, you can feel like you’re nailing it one day then totally losing it the next. But with patience, flexibility, communication, resilience and balance, you have a pretty good head start.
This article was written by Claire Gillespie.